Lately, I think we’ve all been a little anxious, to use a heavily overused word, in my life anyway. Everyone is worried about the world situation with the COVID-19 pandemic and the crisis in our country with regards to race relations, politics, and our collective future. How will things ever get better?
Well, that comes down to why you think we’re here, I believe. Some believe we have a “greater purpose” and that we are put on earth for a reason. While this is a belief I don’t share, I respect those who do, and those very same people have accomplished some great things. Of course, Hitler believed that too…
There are people who think life has no purpose whatsoever. We are just collections of biological goo, going around on this earth waiting for whatever other collection of goo or some cosmic cataclysm to do us in and end our turn. I also don’t share this opinion, but I say that with a few caveats.
I personally agree that we are mostly just a collection of biological goo. Still, I think that the consciousness that we see as ourselves sets us up to create a meaning for our lives that, even if no one else around us sees it, or cares about it, does indeed define our existence. If you listen to the voices available today, the mainstream of them would have you believe that only external approval counts and that true happiness comes from acceptance and praise from our peers. Indeed, we have evolved to enjoy that experience, probably something to do with being a successful contributor to the continued existence of the tribe or whatever. I would counter that this is shallow satisfaction and that the very seeking of it leads to unhappiness. Very Buddhist of me, I know. There are, of course, environments where external approval matters to some extent, the workplace and education environments come to mind. Again though, it is that same need to feel that we are contributing to the tribe’s success. The company we work for is simply an extension of the tribe. When we were all hunter-gatherers, work, and life tribes were one and the same. Today, of course, they are typically separated, at least to some extent. As athletes, we are members of another tribe, desperately seeking approval through race results, or hanging on to the tail end of the blazing group ride Sunday morning. Usually, that release of endorphins makes us feel good enough to come back and suffer through that experience again the next race weekend, or the next blazing group ride on Sunday morning.
In that sentence, I used the word that defines the whole thing, “endorphins.” Most of what we do is driven by hormones. Endorphins are a generic name for peptide and neuropeptide hormones released by the pituitary gland. They are generally thought to be linked to our natural reward circuits, in a nutshell, to make us feel good when we do something good for the body. Eating, drinking, sex, exercise, are all triggers for the release of endorphins. I’m not a doctor or a researcher, I just like to read, and I want to understand the world and myself as much as I can. I know that a lot of our behavior is driven by the desire to feel the release of endorphins and that many of the things that cause that release are physical in nature. Once we understand that our behavior is driven by this release and that our “conscious thinking” is really just a search for things that will make us feel good, it’s a lot easier to understand why we do what we do.
Yuval Harari makes a pretty solid argument in his book “Homo Deus” that this is the ONLY thing that drives us, that this explains what we see as our “consciousness” and that there is nothing more to it. I’ve read that book twice now, and I have decided (or my collections of hormones has if he is correct) that I don’t accept this as all we are.
I’m not going to go into a long rant about my beliefs on consciousness, or what I think it even is, but I’ve read and studied numerous sources on it, and I think we have a say in our actions that is driven by something more than just hormones. So that being said, I still understand how strong that desire for satisfaction is. I am also driven by the desire to trigger my brain’s reward center, and I like the way it feels. We spend so much of our lives searching for that feeling without understanding what causes it. We are constantly bombarded by messages that if we buy this thing, or look at the things others have bought, we will find true happiness, even if it’s only till the next version of the thing is released and brings even more pleasure. Sounds pretty shallow, I think.
I’ve made a few changes in my life in the last ten years, and while I haven’t been 100% successful, I’ve gone a very long way toward finding satisfaction internally, without the praise or approval of others. I am happy or less happy with my own performance based on my own critique, rather than others’ opinion or determination. I’m not saying I don’t still share, I absolutely do, I have Instagram, I have an active Strava account and the like, but I don’t dwell on any of the feedback I receive unless it is decidedly constructive in nature. In a way, one could argue that it is an extension of the philosophy of cutting the negative out of my life, and maybe that’s somewhat true. I haven’t even begun to talk about the impact of stress hormones on happiness or performance. I’ll save that for another day. I still have a long way to find this blissful nirvana I describe, but its a goal to work toward, and I have found myself to be so much happier than ever before once I accepted it as the way I travel.